I try not to go out at night this time of year.
I attempt to be home by the time the sun sets, inside the house with shades drawn. Preferably, in the basement. If I’m not, the anxiety is overwhelming.
From Thanksgiving to a week or two into the new year, I am a nocturnal prisoner in my own home.
It’s the Christmas lights.
There are few things that trouble me more than Christmas lights —on the exterior of buildings, strung in bright webs on bushes, trees, mailboxes, doghouses, and the like. I become agitated when I see illuminated Santas and manger scenes. A colorfully lit crèche is enough to make me scream.
I didn’t always react this way to Christmas displays,
When I was a very young kid, my grandmother Mabel and my Aunt Gladys bundled my brother, Kurt, and me in our winter clothes, and drove us to downtown Denver during the pre-Christmas season. The windows in the department stores were decorated, and we joined a crowd of viewers walking up and down 16th Street, fascinated by the artistry, the colors and sounds. Vendors sold roasted chestnuts, tamales and baked potatoes from pushcarts. There’s nothing like a fresh, warm tamale on a cold winter night.
My grandmother Minnie and Aunt Hazel were assigned the annual drive-by at the Denver City and County Building, which was decorated every Christmas season with lights. Illuminated displays filling the large expanse in front of the building, including a now politically incorrect, super-sized manger scene. With fake camels and real hay.
I loved it: the people, the food, the lights, the food, the tradition.
Then my cousin Jack, aka J.R. or Jay, ruined everything.
Jack ruined a lot of things; he was a pain in the ass. Every family has one: a pathologically overachieving, brown-nosing goody two-shoes, who makes others (read me) look bad.
My cousin was a problem from the beginning; he was the first of our generation born to my mother’s side of the family, and his arrival was an occasion for great joy. By the time I arrived — “an accident” that occurred nine months after the troop train arrived in Denver following World War II— the pattern was set. Jay got the attention, Jay was watched eagerly for each developmental leap, Jay was idolized. Me: I got a hand-me-down bassinette, worn baby clothes, and a Bozo the Clown doll with dried banana on its face.
My cousin was destined to be the paragon of all that was fine and good; Karl would be the black sheep. Jay would do everything perfectly; Karl would be a troublemaker, the source of teeth-gnashing concern.
Jay would excel in his studies in school, and be elected Head Boy at his high school; Karl would watch birdies outside the classroom window, daydream about Annette Funicello’s breasts, and get caught in junior high with a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and a carton of M-80s stashed in his locker.
Jay would get an after-school job and build an impressive balance in a savings account; Karl would spend his meager allowance to bribe his friend, Amos, to drink the holy water at St. Francis Cathedral, warning him at the last second that Jews dissolve when they come into contact with the stuff. (Amos drank it anyway, a brave lad to the end.)
Jay would be sent on trips to youth leadership conventions and be tabbed as a rising star in the asshole firmament; Karl’s father would fetch him from the District 1 police station after an unfortunate incident involving a dram of crème de menthe, a gaggle of Mormon girls, and a small fire in the balcony of the Mayan Theater.
Jay would start his own Sea Scout chapter (in Denver?) and receive an award for charity work from the President of the United States; Karl would procure a beat-up red sparkle Ludwig drum kit and play extremely loud rock and roll music with his worthless pals.
Jay would compete in spotless, white duds on the tennis team; Karl would opt for any sport that allowed a short, wide guy to run into someone else, and cause bodily injury.
And so it went. The classic battle of good (me) and evil (him).
The twit was the World’s Biggest Pain in the Ass, and he ruined the Christmas decoration experience for me, forever.
Back before it became a hive crammed with craft-beer guzzling hipsters and dotted with gentrified neighborhoods given swell new names, back when it was fondly referred to as a “Cow Town,” the city of Denver sponsored a Christmas house decoration contest, with a whopping $50 grand prize.
It was an alien notion at our house, where holiday decorations and the celebration itself were topics for debate.
My mother came from serious Anglican stock, so Christmas was a major event. My father was a secular soul; Christmas, to him, was little more than an opportunity for greeting card manufacturers and major corporations to make a lot of money.
The compromise: Mom got a Christmas tree and made a big deal out of the holiday. Dad got a few extra hits of Johnny Walker Blue and a Mercedes 190 SL.
Then came the day my life changed, and decorations took center stage.
“Boys, boys, quick, come here.” It was Minnie; she arrived in a tizzy, hurrying through the front door, wrapped in her fur coat. “I have the grandest news. It’s absolutely wonderful. Jay has won the Christmas lighting contest. Can you imagine: our little lamb peach won it. Hurry, get your coats on, we’re going to Jay’s house to see the lights. And the mayor will be there to give him an award. Isn’t it wonderful?”
My heart sank. The asshole had done it again.
We jumped in Minnie’s car, Aunt Hazel, as usual, doing the chauffeur work, and we motored over to north Denver. You could see the glow from Jay’s house a half mile away.
We had to park two blocks from the house; there were policemen directing traffic.
We made our way through the crowd and, as we came to the front lawn, the glare from the lights was blinding, like the flash from a nuclear blast. I thought my corneas were fried, my retinas melted.
We arrived in time to hear the mayor congratulate the World’s Biggest Pain in the Ass on his “incredible accomplishment.” The mayor put his arm around the irritating dork’s shoulders, and reminded the crowd Jay had worked tirelessly for more than a month to prepare “his moving display.”
On the drive back home, Minnie turned around and looked into the back seat. “Karl, you should show some initiative: Be like Jay and do something we can all be proud of for a change.”
I wondered where I could obtain another dram of crème de menthe.
The awful experience repeated itself annually, getting more oppressive each time around. My cousin enlisted work crews to help him decorate the house; the geek won the contest every year. Each winter, we put on our coats and traveled across town to be blinded. Each year, at my mother’s gala Christmas open house, the crowd of partygoers burst into applause when Jay arrived.
No one was interested in the “Greatest Sacrifice” award I won for breaking my own nose during hockey season.
Finally, I had enough: I decided I, too, would enter the Christmas lighting contest. I would show everyone. When people pulled up in front of the house for my mother’s party, they would be stunned by the display that greeted them. My lickspittle cousin would arrive empty handed (since I, of course, would capture the trophy) and would have to endure a grandmother urging him to, “be more like Karl. Isn’t our little lamb peach wonderful?”
I filled out an application and sent it in.
Mom was thrilled by the idea. She offered to buy the supplies.
“Will you need a crèche, dear? Maybe two?”
Dad, as usual, provided balance.
“I understand how you feel, son,” he said one morning as he prepared his usual breakfast: two fingers of Johnny Walker mixed with half a glass of milk. “Your cousin’s a jerk; never could stand the little shit. But, it’s not worth the effort. It’s not your milieu.”
I had no idea what a milieu was, but as I headed for the door he added, “If you insist on doing this, let it be a lesson to you, learn from it. And don’t let your mother buy any statues plus, whatever you do, don’t build a manger. Oh, and no crosses.”
I procured a transformer, twelve packs of special outdoor lights — each pack containing a 50-foot strand of multi-colored bulbs that would blink on and off — and four rolls of nifty reflective foil. I did several designs in preparation for my project and decided on a modernist rendering of the city people talked about at Christmas — Bethlehem, Beersheba, Beirut, whatever — done in the style of Cezanne, all cubes, spheres and cylinders.
How did I do?
Not well. There were problems.
I obtained the lights four weeks before the contest and Mom’s party. Being easily distracted and obsessed with Annette Funicello’s breasts (though I was increasingly convinced it was Darlene who would put out), I watched a lot of TV, and procrastinated a bit, waiting until the day before the judging to begin my work.
Have you noticed how strands of Christmas lights get tangled when they’re left to themselves? You take them from the box, set them down, tend to something else and, when you turn back, the wire is in a knot. I had twelve strands. That’s a huge knot.
I fell off the roof. Twice.
Electricity and water: a nasty combination. Avoid it whenever possible.
The dog shredded my reflective foil.
Bottom line: the day of the big party, the exterior of the house was undecorated, the strings of bulbs wound in a huge ball at the end of the porch.
I plugged it in.
Jay arrived with his trophy.
I was outside, but I heard the applause.
It was cold. Once again, I had failed. Mom was disappointed; Dad was in the basement drinking Scotch with the Santa my mother hired for the party. Santa was Bud, the janitor at Dad’s clinic. He liked Johnny Walker, too. There’s nothing better at a Christmas party than a drunk Santa.
I needed something to warm me up. One of those tamales from the pushcarts. Maybe some chile. An appropriate chile. One too hot for my cousin’s wimpy palate.
In New Mexico, if the restaurant is decent, you can order a meal with chile and ask for a “Christmas” treatment. Whatever arrives at the table will include both red and green chile – the chiles unmixed, next to each other, slopped over something on the plate.
I’ve simplified the concept and devised a recipe for a single chile that combines the best of both worlds in a Christmas tree concoction. I make it. I eat it. I feel better.
Start with a pound of diced, trimmed pork shoulder, seasoned with salt and pepper. Cook the meat in olive oil until it is white — not browned. Toss in a handful of flour and cook for a bit, building a light brown roux. Add a couple tablespoons ground, hot red chile, (I use a spectacular, custom Chimayo red, sold at a tiny country store in Espanola, New Mexico). Blend and cook until the aroma of the chile hits the nose like a stiff jab. Add about four cups chicken broth and stir, using more broth to bring the liquid to the desired thickness. Add five or six cloves of garlic, diced and smushed (or, better yet, grated on a microplane), some salt, pepper, and a bit each of oregano and ground cumin.
If you have roasted Hatch chiles in your freezer, it’s time to take them out. If not, put a batch of Bueno or Young Guns brand chopped, hot green chile in the broth. Cover and simmer for at least an hour, stirring frequently. Take the lid off and simmer until reduced to desired consistency. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
I could have used a bowl of this brew as I sat outside that night, shivering, listening to the accolades echoing beyond the door. And some crème de menthe. If nothing else, I could out-eat and out-drink my nemesis.
At least the lights blinked when I plugged them in.